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Early Menopause: Signs, Symptoms, Causes, Complications, Treatments

Editor's Note: This article has been recently updated with latest information and research studies.

What Is Early Menopause?

The average age of menopause in most countries is 50. Therefore, if a woman starts menopause before the age of 40, it is considered early menopause. There are various causes for early menopause, discussed later in this article.

Early Menopause Signs and Symptoms

1. Vaginal Dryness:

Vaginal dryness can occur during early menopause as a result of fluctuating levels of estrogen in a woman’s body. One of the many functions of this hormone is to keep the vaginal tissues elastic, thick, and moist. Hence, if the body cannot maintain optimum levels of estrogen, it causes the vaginal walls to be dry. They also become thinner than normal and less* elastic. Research studies have shown that this symptom is more prevalent during the early menopause than during natural menopause.

2. Bladder Irritability:

When a woman enters early menopause, one of the most common, and most embarrassing, symptoms is bladder irritability. This bladder irritability is also directly related to lower estrogen because this hormone is also responsible for proper bladder function. Bladder irritability is evidenced by bladder leaks at unexpected times. Simple activities like sneezing or coughing can trigger these bladder leaks.

3. Hot Flashes:

Most women in early menopause realise that they are likely going through the early stages of menopause when they have hot flashes. This is probably because hot flashes are the most common menopause symptom, with 75% of menopausal women experiencing them. When a woman has a hot flash, she has a severe feeling of heat on the upper part of her body, so much so that she feels like her body is on fire. Hot flashes are normally accompanied by sweating, heart palpitations, a flushed skin and a high temperature.

4. Irregular/Missed Periods:

During early menopause a woman may begin to experience changes in her menstrual cycle. These changes can be stressful to a woman who is used to having her period in a certain way at a particular time. For example, some women may start having a much heavier menstrual flow than normal, or it may actually become much lighter. In some cases, the period may occur for much fewer days than normal, or for a longer time period. In most cases, however, women skip a few months without having their menstrual period at all.

5. Emotional Changes:

During early menopause, a woman may experience emotional changes. A woman experiencing these changes has strong emotional reactions to external stimuli. Even if a woman has been even tempered for her whole life, she may find it difficult to control* her temper and feelings of despair during early menopause. As she swings from happiness to anger, sadness, or depression, it may make it difficult for those closest to her to communicate with her.

6. Insomnia:

During early menopause, a woman may suffer from insomnia. This means that she is unable to initiate or maintain sleep. Insomnia can be caused by a hot flash that occurs at night. Insomnia may aggravate other symptoms of early menopause, including fatigue, emotional changes and irritability.

7. Night Sweats:

Night sweats during early menopause occur when a woman has a hot flash while she is asleep. She sweats profusely, as a result, and her bedding and night clothes are usually drenched in sweat.

8. Irritability or Difficulty Concentrating:

During early menopause, a woman may find that she becomes particularly irritable. Situations which would have normally not phased her, make her terribly upset. She may also find that she has difficulty concentrating on simple tasks.

9. Decreased* Sexual Desire:

Decreased* sexual desire during early menopause is a direct effect of lower levels of progesterone and estrogen in the body. These hormones are not only responsible for the menstrual cycle, but also for sexual desires and functions. Lower or fluctuating levels of these female hormones decrease* a woman’s libido.

Causes of Early Menopause

1. Natural Causes of Early Menopause:

Natural causes can sometimes cause early menopause. This means that a woman has reached this stage without any external influences. For example, the woman’s female family members may have reached menopause early, hence she is more likely to reach menopause before her 40s.

2. Medical Causes of Early Menopause:

There are several medical treatments that can bring about early menopause. Pelvic radiation treatments or chemotherapy for the treatment of cancer can cause permanent damage to the ovaries. This will lead to an end of the menstrual period and menopause is likely to begin immediately, or a few months after the end of the treatment. If a woman has had surgery to remove* the uterus or the ovaries, she will immediately go into menopause. Her menstrual period stops* and her hormonal levels drop significantly, leading to the onset of severe menopause symptoms.

3. Other Causes of Early Menopause:

Certain autoimmune diseases can work against the body by attacking the ovaries. If the ovaries are damaged, they stop* producing* estrogen and progesterone, and a woman starts early menopause at that stage. Smokers are also at risk of early menopause because their smoking damages the ovaries.

Effects of Early Menopause

A woman in early menopause has the same health risk as those who go through natural menopause. The main difference is that a woman who goes through menopause before she is 40 has got more years without the protective effects of estrogen in her body. Hence, she may be at a greater risk of osteoporosis (loss of bone mass), cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancers.

Emotional Impact of Early Menopause

Early menopause can be emotionally challenging for a woman. If, for example, a woman is still planning to have children, and realises that she has reached menopause, it may be emotionally devastating for her. Furthermore, early menopause symptoms are usually more severe than symptoms during natural menopause.

Risk Factors

A recent research study at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine indicated that women who enter early menopause are at a higher risk for stroke and heart disease. Doctors therefore recommend that as far as possible, women should avoid factors that may influence the early onslaught of menopause, e.g. smoking.

Complications

Because women who enter early menopause have lower levels of estrogen for a longer period of time, their overall health is lower than normal. They are also susceptible to complications brought about by menopausal symptoms, which adversely affect not only their health, but also their relationships with those close to them.

How is Early or Premature Menopause Diagnosed?

In order to diagnose early or premature menopause, a doctor will normally run blood tests. These tests are run to confirm that the menopause symptoms a woman is experiencing are not as a result of other conditions which exhibit similar symptoms. These include certain types of cancers and hyperthyroidism.

Early Menopause Treatments

Early menopause symptoms are usually treated in the same way as natural menopause symptoms. Treatment options include hormone replacement therapy (HRT), natural herbal medicines and lifestyle changes.